October 31, 2009

"American Stories" at The Met

In the 150 years between the American Revolution and World War I, the United States was a country coming of age. Newly independent and in search of its identity these formative years were visually documented by the paintings of what have become some of America's most well-known artists. Copley, Homer, Eakins, Sargent, Chase, Cassatt and a host of others used their brushes and oil paint to express the joys and frustrations experienced by citizens grappling with the important issues of a new government, western expansion, a Civil War, the urbanization of their society, race relations, industrialization and mechanisation and a developing role in on the world stage, while still coping with everyday problems such as family, marriage and community.

A look at these paintings and the tales they tell is now on view at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art. "American Stories: Paintings of Everyday Life, 1765-1915" presents narrative works depicting colonial life in the home, on the frontier, in commerce and at play.

The show is divided into four main sections. "Inventing American Stories, 1765-1830" chronicles the earliest American paintings at a time when the artist was considered not much more than a tradesman whose job was to render an accurate depiction of the subject. The more creative painters managed to bestow a little magic onto the canvas and evoke a story rather than merely recording facts. For example, a nasty boating accident becomes a dramatic rescue at sea in John Copley's "Watson and the Shark", 1778, and Ralph Earl's 1789 portrait "Elijah Boardman" (see right) transforms a textile merchant into a purveyor of elegance.

The next galleries focus on "Stories for the Public, 1830-1860". This period marked the emergence of genre paintings as American society craved scenes of lower- and middle-class daily activities that reinforced a glorified vision of themselves. Francis Edmond's scene of domestic bliss "The New Bonnet", 1858 (see left), William Ranney's courageous pioneer family in "Advice on the Prairie", 1853, Richard Woodville's two generations of war heroes in "Old '76 and Young '48", 1849, and Arthur Tait's dramatic "The Life a Hunter", 1856 all evoke the kind of pride and romanticism the patrons desired.

The terrible years of the Civil War and the reconstruction that followed challenged American artists to present healing yet realistic scenes that depicted the political, economic and social changes while soothing a longing for the pre-war innocence. "Stories of War and Reconciliation, 1860-1877" is an almost nostalgic look at children and childhood (Seymour Guy's "Making a Train", 1867) the great outdoors (Thomas Eakins "The Champion Single Sculls", 1871), scenes of domestic tranquility (John Brown's "The Music Lesson", 1870) and the poignant soldier/farmer in Winslow Homer's "The Veteran in a New Field", 1865 (see below).

As the United States expanded and grew more prosperous, and as the easing of transatlantic travel opened Europe up to more visitors, Americans and American artists became more sophisticated and more confident in their unique identity. The final section, "Cosmopolitan and Candid Stories, 1877-1915", reflects this new comfort level and is a celebration of the better aspects of life in the New World. Images of loving mothers and genteel ladies like Mary Cassatt's "Young Mother Sewing", 1900, Frederic Remington's rugged cowboys in "On the Southern Plains", cultured art patrons enjoying the pictures in Frank Waller's "Interior View of The Metropolitan Museum of Art When in Fourteenth Street", 1881, and the entertainment of George Bellow's "Club Night", 1907, all show a side of America that might have been rosier than reality but projected an ideal that we still consider a "golden era" in American history.

This exhibition is far more than a sentimental look back at the "good old days". It is a historic overview of American painting and painters and a fascinating snapshot of life in this new nation from Colonial times through the Gilded Age. "American Stories: Paintings of Everyday Life" is on view until January 24th.

P.S. I also recommend a quick trip across the hall to see "Watteau, Music, and Theater" a small but amazing presentation of drawings and paintings by Jean-Antoine Watteau (1684-1721) who is considered the early 18th Century's finest and most important artist in all of Europe. With a focus on his depictions of musical and theatrical scenes and supplemented with antique instruments and porcelains from The Met's impressive collection, this show is short but oh so sweet!

October 21, 2009

What's On In London

Last week the art world gathered in London for the opening of several museum exhibitions and the much-hyped contemporary art fair FRIEZE. As I happened to be passing through en route to Paris I thought I'd take advantage of the offerings and pop in to some of the shows.

I'll start with my favorite - now on at the Royal Academy of Arts on Piccadilly is a solo exhibition featuring the work of Bombay born sculptor Anish Kapoor. New Yorkers may remember Kapoor's stunning "Sky Mirror" that graced Rockefeller Center's plaza in 2006. Until December 11, the Royal Academy's elegant galleries will be transformed into "a succession of physical and psychological experiences" that are totally captivating. From smaller early pigment works to the site specific red-wax-firing cannon "Shooting into the Corner" the exhibition was enthralling. I especially loved the mirror sculpture in the courtyard "Tall Tree and the Eye" (see photo above) that gave visitors a hint of what was to come. This show is proof that you CAN teach an old dog new tricks and the Royal Academy is to be commended for this daring experiment.

Just opened at the Hayward Gallery in Southbank Centre, is an important retrospective of the work of one of the foremost American Pop Art painters, Ed Ruscha. "Fifty Years of Painting" is a comprehensive but very well curated look at the paintings of this pioneering artist. Known primarily for his bold imagery that incorporates language as a major subject matter, this exhibition follows Ed Ruscha's career from his beginning in the emerging Los Angeles art scene of the 1960's to his present status as a scion of the contemporary school. Hopefully American institutions will take note and honor Ruscha's considerable achievement and influence with a U.S. retrospective in the near future.

Now let's move down the Thames to the Tate Modern where two big shows are currently on view. "John Baldessari: Pure Beauty" is a look at the work of another Los Angeles artist who started working in the 1960's but followed the path of Conceptual Art rather than Pop. Baldessari stunned the art world in 1966 when he followed through on a threat to "cremate" all his art work leaving very few pieces from his early period. Like Ruscha, Baldessari also made great use of language in his imagery but he applied it in a totally different way, using a more subliminal approach and working with a wide variety of mediums including photography and found objects. Unlike Ruscha, he has never been a superstar but his influence on contemporary artists has been profound and his work seems to become more popular as time goes on.

Also at the Tate Modern is "Pop Life: Art in a Material World" a look at artists from the 1980's to now and how they embraced commerce and mass media to build their brand. You know that romantic stereotype of the starving artist living in a garret, sustained by his mission - well, these are not that kind of artist. Andy Warhol once said "Good business is the best art" and this exhibition does its best to prove the point. From the explicit erotica of Jeff Koons to the Japanese cartoon camp of Takashi Murakami to Keith Haring's "Pop Shop", the theme of this show could well be "Greed is Good".

Two interesting points though - the organizers were forced by the British police invoking child pornography laws to remove one particularly touchy work that showed an under-aged Brooke Shields posing in the nude. On a more charming note, British art world Bad Boy Damien Hirst hired several sets of identical twins to take turns sitting under two of his identical dot paintings for the the duration of the show. On the afternoon of my visit, two teenage girls were wrapping up their tour of duty and their Mum and Grandmother had come in from the country to see them and to take them out for lunch. Poor Grandma looked a little pale after she viewed some of the more off-color parts of the exhibition, but I think she was happy for her girls.

For an even more unabashedly commercial look at art and the art business you just had to go to the opening of the hyper-contemporary FRIEZE art fair. This year 150 exhibitors gathered under a special tent in Regent Park to participate in one of the art world calendar's highlights. I had never visited FRIEZE before and was looking forward to seeing what all the fuss was about. I don't know if I am jaded or just not that "into" contemporary art but FRIEZE left me cold. Maybe it was a victim of the soft art market, or maybe the quality of the material presented was simply not that good, but there did not seem to be a lot of energy buzzing through the place. The people watching, however, was superb! I can't say I'm in a big rush to come back next year but it was great to visit once.

It's been a fun few days in London - glorious weather and lots to see - but now it's time to board the Eurostar and head off to Paris for some more adventures. Cheerio!

The Thames with Saint Paul's in the background

October 14, 2009

Roman Holiday

Regular readers of my blog know that I am an unapologetic Francophile, but last week I made a diversion and spent three glorious days in the Eternal City. I had never been to Rome, in fact it is almost 25 years since I last visited Italy, and I was wowed beyond my greatest expectations!

I think what struck me the most about this city of over 2.7 million inhabitants (and almost as many tourists!) was the juxtaposition of ancient and modern. America is a very young land and to walk amidst ruins and structures dating back thousands of years was thrilling. Everywhere you go you are surrounded by history, yet on these ancient paths thoroughly modern motorini roar by with their drivers yelling into telefonini!

This marvelous city has so much to see and do that it was hard to know where to start. So I decided to go to another city entirely - Vatican City - to begin my discovery of Rome. Arriving at St Peter's Square around noon I found it bustling with Cardinals and Clerics rushing about in their distinctive attire, but not so many visitors waiting in line to view the Basilica. I began with a descent into the Vatican Grottoes, where St Peter is buried as well as centuries of Popes. The most recent tomb is that of John Paul II, the Polish Pope, whose grave is covered with flowers and prayers left by the faithful. Upstairs, the Basilica is enormous and awe-inspiring with massive marble columns and Bernini's bronze "Baldacchino" marking the high altar. Michelangelo's "Pietà" lies directly to the right of the entrance. Now, sadly, behind protective glass, the sculpture nevertheless inspires great emotion and I was amazed at how a piece of cold marble could be turned into something so tender and touching.

Piazzo San Pietro

I decided to forgo the climb to the dome and opted instead to visit another Michelangelo masterpiece, the Sistine Chapel. But to get there one has to pass through the entire Vatican Museum, which probably covers a few kilometers! It's an amazing walk though passageways filled with treasures from the Gallery of Maps to the Borgia Rooms culminating in the magnificence of the most famous ceiling in the world. The urge to lie down on the marble floor and gaze upward is almost overwhelming but fortunately prohibited or visitors would have to pick their way through a mass of prostrate people!

After a late lunch of a delicious pizza it was time to leave Città del Vaticano and continue to the nearby Castel Sant' Angelo. Begun by the Emperor Hadrian in A.D. 135 as his own mausoleum and serving variously as a fortress, prison and papal residence, the castle offers spectacular views of the city from its many ramparts and terraces. Wandering through the halls and stairways I could almost hear Puccini's Tosca in the background as it was here that he imagined his heroine leaping to her death.

Castel Sant' Angelo from across the Bridge of Angels

A short walk across the beautiful Bridge of Angels and I had crossed the Tiber River. It was late in the day and my head was filled with art and history. Time to head back to the hotel and get ready to enjoy a glass of prosecco followed by a delicious dinner!

The next morning broke sunny and beautiful and perfect for a walk in the Borghese Gardens. Begun in the 1600's as a pleasure park for the nephew of Pope Paul V, Scipione Caffarelli Borghese, the gardens have evolved into an important public green space with paths for walking, jogging and riding, flower gardens, museums, play areas, cafés and even a casino. One of the main attractions for me was the Galleria Borghese whose collection of Caravaggio's and Bernini's is meant to be sublime, but admission tickets were sold out until after my departure. I would have to reserve well in advance next time.

Instead I headed south toward the Villa Medici, the Piazza del Popolo and the Spanish Steps. Named for the nearby Spanish Embassy to the Vatican, the steps were actually financed by a French diplomat in 1725 who got tired of climbing up a muddy slope to the church of Trinitá dei Monte. From this practical beginning came one of the city's most famous landmarks and a special meeting place for Romans and visitors alike.

After strolling past the elegant boutiques on the Via Condotti, peeking into a few open Basilicas and a stop for a cappuccino, I found myself in the epicenter of Rome, the Pantheon. Another structure begun by Hadrian (in A.D. 119), it survives as the best preserved ancient site in the city and a temple to art history and architectural design. The perfect hemispherical dome has a hole in the center allowing natural sunlight to stream within illuminating different points as the sun traverses the sky. The building still functions as a church with a lovely altar and beautiful frescoes on the walls, and is the burial place for the first king of Italy, Vittorio Emanuele II, and the painter Raphael.

It was time for lunch and a slice of pizza with the typical light crust, almost like a piece of matzo, with a delicious tomato and mozzarella topping was just perfect. Restored, I was ready to visit the next site just around the corner on the Piazza della Minerva.

The focus of this square is a fantastic sculpture officially titled il Pulcino della Minerva and affectionately known as Bernini's Elephant. Designed as a tribute to Pope Alexander VII, Bernini sculpted this adorable pachyderm, a symbol of wisdom, fidelity and abstinence, with a 12th-century B.C. obelisk on its back.

The backdrop to Bernini's Elephant is the very unimposing Santa Maria sopra Minerva. Built on the site of the ancient temple of Minerva, this church is the only one in Rome built in the Gothic style. Frankly, from the exterior the building looked like a garage, but the stream of tourists heading inside made me wonder what all the fuss was about. What treasures lay behind those doors! Michelangelo's "Last Judgement", Fra Angelico's "Madonna and Child", and the most amazing, a chapel decorated in 15th century frescoes by Filippino Lippi with colors so fresh and beautiful it might have been painted yesterday. The icing on the cake was the arrival of a wedding party - what a promising beginning to be married in such a special place!

I had just about reached my capacity for culture that day so I spent the rest of the afternoon wandering the charming streets, window shopping, eating a gelato in the Piazza Navona and drinking in the heady Roman ambiance.

Sunday dawned another beautiful Indian summer day and I had a full agenda! I still had not visited Rome's most famous attraction, Il Colosseo, so I put on my walking shoes and started off. The approach to the Colosseum, along the Fori Imperiali, passes acres of ancient ruins in various states of archaeological excavation and the avenue is lined with statues of Julius Caesar. In the distance is the monumental Colosseum - now visited by thousands of sightseers, but formerly the site of monstrous bloodshed in the form of gladiatorial combats and animal sacrifices. In its heyday the arena held 50,000 spectators, but centuries of earthquakes, attacks, scavenging of materials and pollution have left the building damaged yet still very impressive and a global symbol of longevity and solidity.

Just beyond the Colosseum is a small church that is well worth a visit for the remarkable fact that its bottom layer, the lowest of three, dates back to Pagan Rome and the very beginning of Christianity. The "modern" San Clemente, named after the third successor of Saint Peter, was built in the 11th century on top of ruins of a 4th century church, which was next to a Mithraic temple dating to the 2nd century A.D. Visitors can descend to the bowels of the structure to see ancient altar and frescoes of royal figures and early images of the Christ Child. Every now and then one is struck by the sound of running water as the building was constructed to utilize Rome's advanced aqueduct system which provides water to city residents to this day. The modern basilica is decorated with fabulous 18th century mosaic of the Crucifixion over the high altar. It was here in San Clemente that I truly experienced the depth of Rome's 2,000 year roots.

Soon it was back out into the sunshine and a last promenade through Rome's fabled forums to visit the rather incongruous Vittoriano, the enormous white edifice that overwhelms the surrounding ruins and topography. A climb up the steps to the terrace with rewarded with superb views and a tasty lunch of pasta with a glass of vino rosso was very restorative!

It's almost time to leave this beautiful city, but there is still one more very important destination. No visit to Rome is complete without a stop at the marvelous Fontana di Trevi. Seeming to grow out of the adjacent buildings, this magnificent fountain marked the end of the aqueduct that brought water from the eighth mile of the via Collatina to the east of Rome. Immortalized by Anita Ekberg in Fellini's "La Dolce Vita" the Trevi Fountain is a must-see on any Roman itinerary. So I did, and as I faced away from the fountain and threw a Euro over my left shoulder, I made a wish that I may soon return to visit this magical place. Arrivederci Roma!

October 02, 2009

Vermeer's Masterpiece, At The Met!

In a remarkable gesture of friendship between nations, the good people of Holland have commemorated the 400th anniversary of Henry Hudson's discovery of New York with the loan of one of their cultural icons - Johannes Vermeer's "The Milkmaid". Usually at home in the fabulous Rijkmuseum in Amsterdam, this magnificent painting will be hanging at the Metropolitan Museum of Art until November 29th.

It's worth a trip to see this small gem. Painted circa 1657-58, it marks the culmination of Vermeer's early period before he moved into his more mature style and is considered one of the most illusionistic of his works. Typical of this Dutch master's exquisite attention to detail, composition and color, the subject is also an allusion to the implied sexuality often ascribed to milkmaids and kitchen staff in Dutch Renaissance painting. The woman is confident and dignified but what is she dreaming of? Does the little cupid on the Delft tile near her foot indicate romance? And what of the open jug with the water pouring out? A topic for art historians, both professional and amateur!

Johannes Vermeer lived a relatively long life, yet he painted only 36 works. It is a special event to be able to see one in person, but this exhibition features six paintings as the Metropolitan delved into their collection and have complemented the Rjiksmuseum loan with all five from their own holdings. The show is rounded out with paintings by other Dutch masters and several beautiful etchings.

This is only the second time that "The Milkmaid"' has been on display in America and we've waited 70 years for the encore. So unless you have a trip to Holland in your future, I hope you'll be able to visit the Met the fall and see this perfect little jewel for yourself.